Pittsfield City Council approves spending plan for additional $1.3M in state school funds


PITTSFIELD — The city will use new state funds to expand an alternative education program on Eagle Street after a unanimous City Council vote on Tuesday.

The newly approved school spending plan also adds a restorative justice center in each middle school, common planning time for the city's elementary schools, grade level sections at Egremont and Crosby elementary schools and an autism consultant.

Because the final state budget included $1.3 million more for Pittsfield schools than accounted for during the city's springtime budget process, a new spending plan for the current fiscal year was up for review this week by the School Committee and City Council. The new funds are part of an unprecedented $5 million increase in state reimbursements for Pittsfield schools.

Statewide increases reflect agreement among legislators that children living in poverty are more expensive to teach; more than half of the city's public school students are considered economically disadvantaged.

Superintendent Jason McCandless said the students will be in place at the Eagle Street location on Sept. 3. Councilor at Large Earl Persip asked how he'd get everything ready by then.

"We will do what we always do," he said, "we're going to try like heck, put our shoulder into it and push hard."

McCandless said it's been a challenge to house the district's middle school-aged alternative education students at Herberg Middle School. The new plan includes $580,000 for moving those students to Eagle Street and expanding staffing at the space.

Moving the program does more than serve those 16 students, he told councilors. It also allows the school's administrators to divert their attention back to the rest of the student body.

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"That raises all boats," he said.

Asked if that would help retain more middle school students rather than losing them to neighboring districts, he said "it can only help."

The expanded Eagle Street program, which is slated to serve both middle and high school students, will serve a maximum of 60 students with the planned staffing, McCandless said. The current Eagle Street program serves 20.

Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon voiced concerns over separating students. She asked about the racial breakdown of the alternative program, and McCandless said it is proportionate with the rest of the student body.

It's hard to say what best practice is, he told her, but he said he feels this will be the most successful. He said by focusing on these students' specific set of needs the district can better serve them and get the students back alongside the rest of their peers.

"It's not separating for the sake of separating," he said.

Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said the city has to be careful about spending too much of these hard-fought funds from the state on health insurance. Without more of the city's skin in the game, he said it starts to seem like the influx is subsidizing other city expenses.

"I think we're on the edge with that this year," he said.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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